Notes from the re-start of production at Saab

So you’ve seen the press release and the video, but what about the other stuff?

Saab got production underway Friday after a seven week halt and there was a real upbeat spirit about the place. For me, it was especially notable because it was the first time since I’ve been working in Sweden that we actually produced some cars. It was like the part of the soul of this place had checked out for a little while, but today it was back.

Production wasn’t scheduled to start until 10am so I got to work at my normal time and after a bit of email and site moderation, I ventured downstairs to the line. It turns out they’d done a small run around 8am just to make sure that everything would work OK, which it did.

These were the first two cars to roll off the line when things got underway again at 10am.

The second car you can see there is Victor Muller’s own Saab 9-3 Independence Edition Convertible, number 007 of 366 to be made for 2011. They’re not being made in numerical order, by the way, so if you’ve got number 365, don’t panic. It might already be made. Or not. But if not, then it will be soon.

I spent quite a lot of time running between the end of the factory line and the observation room just in front of it. Shoot some film as a car leaves the line. Back to computer to process some video. Back to shoot some film as a car leaves the line. Remember to plug the video camera into the power socket as the battery’s getting low. Back to shoot some film as a car leaves the line. Update the website. Upload the video.

Things ran like that for around an hour until the preparations for the press conference started. Saab’s VP Production and Purchasing, Gunnar Brunius, came down to the line to shoot some video for the official release marking the re-start of production. He was absolutely jumping out of skin, he was so excited. The factory is his baby and to see it humming again brought the man to life.

Various members of the executive team and their senior assistants starting making their way into the observation room, which doubles as a press center, in preparation for the press conference.

Of course, whilst Mr Pang from Pang Da and his senior executives were in Stockholm yesterday, there was a team from Pang Da at Saab doing their ‘due diligence’ work on the company. This is where they learn about the state of the business, find out the gritty details of what they’re getting involved in.

I chatted briefly with a few of the Saab guys and they were very impressed with the knowledge and attitude of the Pang Da team. The one thing that spoke volumes to me was the description of them being ‘product guys’. They were asking not just about the business, but they knew the right questions to ask about the product, which of course is the most important part of the business.

The #1 reason I got this job at Saab is because I’m a car guy who can write a little. I couldn’t do what I do here if I didn’t absolutely love the Saab company and its products, which I do. So when I hear that potential partners for this business are product-oriented people as much as they’re business-oriented people, it makes me excited for the future. Pang Da’s sales in China last year outpaced the entire Swedish vehicle market by two-to-one. Got that? That’s one dealer chain doubling the sales of an entire country. The potential for a small carmaker like Saab just boggles the mind.

The press conference happened and it all went well. The press seemed genuinely engaged and whilst they asked the same tough questions they’ve been asking for the last few weeks (and got the same basic answers) I got the feeling that they were pretty pleased to see things working again at Saab. I had a fair few run-ins with the Swedish press as a private publisher. One guy today asked how life is for me now that I’m on the inside and I told him it was great because I didn’t have to argue with him anymore 🙂 . I guess it’s a bit like the love-hate relationships that sports fans have with rival teams. Sometimes you don’t like having to deal with them, but they’re part of the fabric of life and the picture just wouldn’t be complete without them.

The factory staff were at lunch while the press conference was on. The press conference finished just in time for Mr Pang and Victor Muller to head out to the production line and see it in action – followed by a considerable press contingent, of course.

There was much talking, agreement, head nodding and a whole bunch of camera flashes as the press corps soaked up the photo opportunity. Another day in the glasshouse, I guess.

Mr Pang left shortly thereafter to tour other areas within Saab’s campus, whilst Victor Muller held court with the journalists present for around 45 minutes or so.

That was the end of the official function as far as the press were concerned. Mr Pang and his team still had plenty to see. The Pang Da due diligence team still had some things to be diligent about. With the formalities over, we could all relax for a few minutes.

It was in this afterglow of the press conference and the rest of the afternoon that a few magic moments happened for me. Sometimes you just see or hear people in unguarded moments and it brings out their true nature, what they really think and believe.

The first of these was in a brief conversation after all the press had left. It was just a small group with myself included. I’m still a little awestruck that I’m so accepted in these circles as a Saab person, but anyway….. Victor was talking and he said that he was constantly amazed by how people were willing to go into bat for this company.

I don’t know if there’s a way to misconstrue that comment, but let me provide some context for you. It wasn’t amazement in terms of being surprised. The comment was incredibly affectionate and humble. It was an acknowledgement of the fact that the people at Saab had done an incredible job in the last weeks to get things up and running again on the factory floor. It was a comment that recognised the dedication and attachment that people have towards this little car company.

We’re underdogs and we know it. Any press report about Saab usually includes a quote from ‘an industry analyst’ and those analysts must be lining up to provide a few thoughts and get their names in the papers. It’s a no-brainer for them to talk down Saab’s future prospects. We’re a relatively small company in a very big industry. The things they don’t count on are our tenacity and our capability. We’ve been reading and listening to the prophecies of doom for years and still, everyone I’ve met who works for this company loves what they do and company they do it for. There’s absolutely no doubt that people at Saab have embraced the Spyker motto Nulla tenaci invia est via.

The second magic moment was in a company-wide phone conference held by some of the senior executive team in the afternoon. One of the senior executives (I won’t mention who) referred to ‘the spirit of Saab’ several times. He wasn’t referring to the book by the same name – a copy of which would be given to every new Saab employee, if it were up to me. He was referring to the spirit of Saab itself: innovation, the road less travelled, energy, personality, being able to do things that people think you shouldn’t be able to do. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it mentioned this week, but I was sure glad to hear it. It’s something that I like to think I embraced a long time ago. I think most Saab fans feel the same way about themselves. And it’s reassuring to think that the senior leaders of the company have embraced it, too.

The spirit of Saab won’t save this company. Designing, building and selling great Saabs is the key to that. We’ve got the design part down pretty well now and today, we re-started the building phase of the process. Now we have to sell them and we have a lot of people to convince all over again – dealers, press, other stakeholders and of course, customers.

We make some absolutely brilliant cars and the future is only getting bigger and better in terms of our product range. But we still need people to buy them in order to survive. And that’s the next exciting challenge that we face.

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15 Comments

  1. Steven,
    Excellent summary and perspective.  I feel positive about the regulatory approval process…something just tells me this is a good thing for all parties involved. 
    AJM

  2. Great article Swade! I have so much hope and confidence in this little company’s success. Keep spreading the news…it’s just a matter of getting people behind the wheel, and the Saabs will sell themselves.

    Happy Saabing!!

  3. Swade, really nice read and I feel the same as AJ, this just feels right. Also as saabyurk said, I am so glad you’re there and a part of all that is going on. Yesterday, even though you’ve been there for a while now, must have felt like your first day all over again, to see cars coming off the production line. Very happy for you and all at the home of Saab.

  4. Why are all those very young teenage girls clinging to VM was my first thought before i realized they all was average size adult girls/women with a microphone in their hands.

    There are many of us that can “write a little” but few of us that can make a living out of it. You should contemplate about that before being to humble about you’r writing skills. I’m pretty sure you could run a very successful fishmeal blog if you was really into fishmeal 😉

  5. are they talking about similar JV’s for India and Brazil, look forward to seeing the Antonov Russian strategy also.

  6. Swade: You work above the Saab production line.  Pinch yourself.

    Excellent points in your last two paragraphs – that is where the rubber meets the road.  We’ll try to do our part by buying new Saabs, buying genuine Saab parts to keep current Saabs on the road, and evangelizing when we can.

  7. I am so happy production restarted. SAAB really needs to survive. Funny to see Victor now owns 007 as he used to own a Spyker C8 Spyder with VIN number #007. Can’t be a coincidence 😉

  8. Steven, this is sure great news. Rollercoasting isn’t one of Saab’s attributes. What I like best though is this initiative itself: giving the brand a real human voice. Skip all corporate BS and go back to the essence of the brand: the emotional bond with all current (and lot’s of former) Saab owners. In my view it’s realy being very close to the customer that can save Saab & return it to health. And this is the way to go. And while you’re at it: I’d realy like to you someday write the story about why GM decided to skip the 93 hatch. When I look around here, I see most of the Saabs out here (yes, the Netherlands, now the second homeland…) are hatches. I drove a 900 for many many years, but dropped out with the sedan. Why? Why in heaven’s name made GM this decision? Should be a good story…Anyway, keep on writing these interesting stories from behind the scenes.

  9. Very happy to see you there Swade. And very happy to see this deal going through for Saab. I have not doubt Saab will make it if you can just focus on getting the 9-4X into heavy production and sales in the US. I am sure that model is going to really shake things up here. I for one am sure to make it my next Saab!! 🙂

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